After months of anticipation, loads of great Twitter bits, zero shows and 10,000 free t-shirts, Conan O’Brien finally debuted his TBS talk show, Conan tonight. Critics, fans and anyone with a remote interest in television of the late night variety wondered how Conan would mold his personality to the basic cable network, 11 p.m., etc.
One episode in, the answers to those questions are all similar: “Pretty much the same way he always has.”
Expectations are high and folks are probably expecting too much of Conan after the amazing 2010 he’s had — you know, despite losing The Tonight Show — but aside from multiple NBC-directed jabs, Conan felt like a typical episode of a late night talk show hosted by O’Brien. I don’t want to go as far to say that you could have dropped into Conan at any time in the past 10 years or so and this is what you would have gotten (change in guests, obviously), but anyone who does make that claim isn’t entirely off-base.
However, there is a definite spring in Conan’s step in the sense that this effort felt like something from the good Late Night days or the last few weeks on The Tonight Show. He was loose, completely willing to play to the crowd and generally not concerned with asking any good questions to his guests (weird discussion of the GQ shoot with Lea Michelle notwithstanding). The cold open was fantastic and honestly, even better than I remember the Tonight Show opening being, the monologue was fine and the first guest Twitter competition thing was played with the right amount of goofiness. Plus, Conan playing with Jack White was both enjoyable and a great callback to the tour that kept Conan in the public eye throughout 2010.
Oddly, the first show kind of suffers because it focuses too much on Conan. It seems obvious that the show had to comment on it and play it up for laughs, but there’s a lot of “Conan, you’re awesome” from the guests and it played out in this weird nostalgia-but-not-really-type feeling that can’t really be described. It’s not an overwhelmingly bad thing, it’s just something that needs to be weaned away moving forward. Early on, the show can be about Conan and his journey, but at some point, the show will have to do something else than revel in the newfound super-stardom of its host.
Would I have liked to see Conan try more pre-shot bits and more wacky, completely stupid gags instead of awkwardly interviewing Seth Rogen about his engagement? Absolutely. Do I suspect those things will come in the future when Conan gets a little more familiar with the new series and the new audience? Absolutely.
Some might be disappointed, but this is exactly what I expected. It will get better, and it’s just frankly great to have Conan back no matter how lame the guests are.